The Christ of History and the Christ of Experience
As we read the reports about Pentecostalism the rapid spread of the charismatic movement in general, it seems that the world is suddenly "turning on to Jesus." The most outstanding characteristic of this development is the testimonials from those who are experiencing Jesus in their lives. They proclaim the Christ of their experience. To them, Jesus seems real – so real that they can witness to it by remarkable experiences in their own lives. The Christ of experience has, therefore, become the great evangelistic point of the Jesus Revolution. Many contend that this Jesus is real and tangible, while the Christ of history is somewhat far off, impersonal and unreal.
In proportion as the Charismatic Movement has exalted the Christ of experience, it has put the Christ of history very definitely in the background. But in doing this, Pentecostalism is in real danger of putting Christianity into the background. Before we get confused with any sentimental or mystic religious experience, let us consider that Christianity is the only truly historical religion. It proclaims a salvation that is based on objective, historical events – events that are entirely outside of a man's personal experience. Every other religion bases its "salvation" on the worshiper's own mystic experience. Thus "salvation" becomes a matter of one's own personal achievement, i.e., the achievement of a subjective experience. It does not matter if the adherent of the religion claims that salvation is by grace, for grace is made to be an experience. And to be sure of salvation, he has to look into his own experience – a very disquieting and uncertain thing at best. The Christ of experience is not so real after all. In fact, he can disappear in the fog of human feelings and impressions, and the worshiper can easilybe left the empty idol of his own mystic experience.
The gospel is good news because it is sure and certain. It proclaims objective, historical events (see 1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, NKJ 1 Corinthians 15:1-4
Salvation has been brought to us by concrete events in history – the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Christ has conquered. He has secured salvation for poor, lost, sinful men. By His experience in tasting death for every man, He justifies all who believe (Isa. 53:11; Heb. 2:9).
He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. NKJ Isaiah 53:11
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. NKJ Hebrews 2:9
It is His experience (a historical reality) that is of supreme importance. This is to be the focus of the Christian's thinking, faith and witness. Faith must rest on something entirely outside of a man's experience, i.e., the Christ of history.
Of course, this Christ of history still lives because there has been a resurrection. As men put their faith in what He has done for them and what He is to them, He lives in their hearts. Experience of the indwelling Christ springs from faith in the "outside" Christ. Paul could say "Christ liveth in me" simply because he could add, "I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me." Gal. 2:20.
God is known only in Christ crucified. The cross is the revelation of God. Any attempt to know God or to experience Him outside of the cross is idolatry. The only way to test the validity of a "the Christ of experience" is to ask, "Was this religious experience gained by the revelation of the cross, or is it something unrelated to the historic gospel?"